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stefan beyst
defying moses the wall flight fight scapegoat der abschied lost city


To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
William Blake, Auguries of Innocence.


'Auguries of Innocence' is a series of seven images devoted to the phenomenon of the mass.

The mass - not an obvious subject. For, it may well be called a veritable paradox that, of all things the mass, which increasingly came to dominate the history of the past century, has practically disappeared form the image during the same period. Only in journalistic photography has it been dealt with sufficiently. But it is always concrete masses in concrete historical situations that are portrayed here. And that threatens to bereave the subject of its universality, which has to elevate it above the mere documentary level, however touching. For - to give only one example - even the best photo of the Berlin Wall deprives us of the sight of all those other walls that have been erected in the course of history with similar intents: from the Chinese Wall and the Hadrian Wall of Ancient times, to the more contemporary Atlantic Wall, Mexican Wall and Separation Wall - not to mention the more numerous invisible walls that are erected through the mere possession of a passport or the mere wearing of religious symbols. In the hand-made image, the problem can easily be solvedthrough resorting to historical, mythical or religious prototypes - or better still: to imaginary masses. It is precisely therefore that the absence of the mass in the image asks for an explanation.

In my opinion, there are contentual as well as technical reasons for this absence.

To begin with, in every day life, the mass seems to be completely inexistent. It only becomes visible when people begin to withdraw from that every day life to gather on one and the same place and in one and the same time. That is why the appearance of the mass always has something of an epiphany. An epiphany that always goes hand in hand with a break-through, not only of an often overwhelming feeling of togetherness, but foremost of a more ominous feeling of hostility towards all those who do not belong to the group - the heathen, the enemies. At the same time, the communal feeling loosens - if not annihilates - the ties to the smaller social formations of every day life - most obvious in the orgy, during which the marital bonds are denied. This has a twofold consequence. Often, people are ashamed of what they have felt when submerged in the community, or they feel guilty about what they have done as member of a mass - and that makes them reluctant to be reminded of their existence as a communal being . But perhaps more decisive is the fact that, behind the euphoria of the often orgiastic feeling of togetherness, the epiphany of the mass conjures up something very ominous, that we all too readily want to erase from our consciousness: that every community excludes in the first place, with a radicalism of which the competition between (nuclear) families or (groups of cooperating) individuals is only a faint afterglow.

No doubt, this is the reason why people so eagerly seek refuge in the private world. That is also reflected in the image. To be sure, for a long time the mass has been a dominating theme in the image, even when it was mostly personalised in gods or kings. But is only when figures like Goya brought to light the reverse side of their triumphalistic appearance, that the theme gradually left way to themes of a more private character. And, among these private themes, it is eroticism that has become predominant - eroticism: precisely the dimension of existence that is the utter denial of every social existence.

No doubt, the above lies at the roots of what we call 'the mimetic taboo':a generalised rejection of the 'literary' or 'narrative' aspect in art, that is responsible for the rejection of content as such. And that taboo puts a ban not only on the private, especially the erotic, but above all on the theme of the mass.

When making 'Auguries of Innocence', this double taboo had to be lifted. Seven appearances of the mass imposed themselves. We ordered them around the central image 'Defying Moses', where the mass is about to close the ranks and, in so doing, to the exclude the rest of mankind - against Moses' commandment no to worship particular gods. Around this central picture, we ordered three pairs of oppositions. In 'The Wall', we show the reaction of those who are excluded. In 'Und von den Städten wird bleiben....' , the counterpart of 'the Wall', we show what is the destiny of the mirage around which the wall is erected: as long as Moses' commandment is not obeyed, the death dance of cultures will continue. A second axis is formed by 'Fight' and 'Flight': the two activities that precede the emergence of the seemingly self-contained community. And in a third axis around the central image, we witness the fate of the individual, that remarkable by-product of the internal contradictions of every particularistic community: exclusion or resignation.


Next to the contentual problems, there is also a whole series of technical problems. In a portrait, we get a full view of the facial expression, the mirror of the soul. In a bust, we also get the gestures, and in a full portrait the overall posture. When a second person enters the image, the impact of the posture increases, as with a Madonna with child, the Jewish Couple or Cain and Abel. The more additional actors enter the image, the more the importance of the global posture increases to the detrimentof the more informative facial expression and gestures. Only great artists succeed in holding the three elements in balance, even when handling larger groups: think of masterpieces like 'The Last Supper' of da Vinci. But that task becomes impossible when great masses have to be staged. The expression of the face cannot but disappear entirely in the background. Only in rare cases do gestures continue to play a role - think of the lifted fists of an angry mob, or of the spears and banners that function as prolongations of the arms. And the interaction of postures, which can still be very complex in small groups, makes place for more elementary patterns: either a random distribution, like on a square or a beach, or elementary patterns such as rows that either succeed one another (processions, parades) or encircle one another (amphitheatres, concert halls or sport halls). Granted, these are rather uninteresting compositions from a visual point of view, which, in addition, from the point of view of content, do not reveal much about what moves the mass internally. It is obvious then that depicting a mass is a rather difficult undertaking,foremost in the still image - even when there are grandiose exceptions also here - think of Rubens' 'Fall of the Angels', where the soul of the group is made visible in an all-encompassing spiralling movement.

To solve this problem, we looked for visually more interesting compositions for the mass event. Thus, in ''Flight', we developed a whole array of patterns of flight: from loosely spread individuals, over rows of pedestrians or horsemen one after another, to the more dense groupings that are formed when larger numbers of people are moving over an open terrain.


Those diverse kinds of groups are in their turn distributed in a complex organic pattern over the slopes of the landscape that is the stage of the mass flight. Moreover, the distribution is not only spatial, but also temporal: the galloping horsemen in the foreground are moving over the more slowly stepping formations of pedestrians.


In 'The Wall', seven masses come to halt before a wall that bars their access to the promised land at the horizon.

the wall

A small first vanguard group comes to a halt in a long row, parallel to the wall. Of a second, third and forth wave, only the first ranks are spreading into a row, while the others, still unaware of the obstacle, continue to move forward. And that is fully the case with the more numerous fifth, sixth and seventh wave that loom up from the dark in the foreground of the image.

Even when we thus succeeded to increase the expressiveness of the mass, the possibilities remain limited. For 'Defying Moses', we initially thought of a stream of people circling around a centre - the golden calf. But, finally, we opted for a more suggestive solution. On the one hand, we show the community before it is really united: while its members are still moving towards the meeting ground. What they are going to do there can only be surmised from the place where the event is about to happen: there, two entwined spirals are turning in opposite directions, one towards the cleft in the centre, the other towards the open space around the secluded meeting ground. That pattern of motion tells more about the forces that are at work within the mass, than the concrete formation in which they soon will merge.

All these endeavours only make it all the more clear how little expressive a mass is: it hasno 'face'. Happily, the same move that relegates facial expression, gestures and postures to the background, brings the landscape to the fore. It thereby becomes predestined to fill the void created by the increased distance and thus to become the vicarious mirror of the mass soul - wherefore we called this genre a 'mass-scape', a condensation of 'landscape' and 'mass scene'. Already in 'The Wall', the movement from darkness to light comes to endorse the movement of the waves of migrants, while it at the same times reveals what drives the masses: out of the darkness of their exclusion, they set out for the world that appears as a lighting mirage on the horizon. In 'Fight', it is equally the landscape that reveals the real sense of the drama: under the darkness of an indifferent sky, the struggling mortals are trying to push each other in the abyss.


In 'Flight', it is the desolate landscape, wherein the traces of a flood are moving in a direction opposite to that of the refugees, that renders the hostility of the environment and the desolation that now befalls the refugees. But above all in 'The Scapegoat', it is in the first place the ominous sky and the narrowing space under the clouds that reveal the real meaning of the drama that is nearly perceptible unfolding in the corner on the right:


And that goes even more for the mountains in the counterpart of this image, 'Der Abschied':



The same zooming out that threatens to deprive us of the inner motives of the mass, also leads to a distancing from the proceedings of the mass itself. Whereas a portrait looks us right in the eyes, or whereas a mother and child include us as a third participating party, contemplating a mass from the distance makes us feel utterly excluded and reduced to the status of a mere outsider. On the one hand, that comes to endorse our propensity to erase the mass from our consciousness. But, on the other hand, the increased distance allows us to face this dark side of our human nature undisturbed.

Therein, 'Auguries of Innocence' is heir to the tradition of Flemish landscape painting, wherein historical, biblical or mythological scenes are reduced to peripheral events in a landscape. This zooming out acquired a new meaning with Brueghel, who relativated 'historical' events through submerging them in the context of 'non-historical' every day life. In 'Auguries of Innocence', the distance to the events is still greater: as if through a telescope, we look down upon the human phenomena on the earth's crust. And precisely therefore, the distancing can be transformed in a new participation on a higher level: it is as if we distance ourselves from or limited selves and identify with Shopenhauer's World Will. Or to phrase it in more modern terms: as if we recognise the horror of mass-events - foremost those of war, exclusion and oppression - as our own biological essence - as our deepest human nature.

In that the distance has become so enormous, the mass threatens not only to disappear in the landscape, the landscape itself shrinks into a mere fragment that looms up from the void wherein our planet is circling. The fundamental drama, of which we unfolded seven appearances, is thereby reduced to a futile event in the midst of cosmic indifference. Initially, it is only that fragment of a landscape that catches the eye. Only gradually does the onlooker become aware of the tiny figures that are engaged in some drama, and who are as it were the body belonging to the soul that reveals itself in in the landscape.


But it is only when we zoom in on what has become nearly invisible through the telescopic distance, that the perspective on the dark side is reversed. For, precisely through getting in touch with those aspects of our nature that we wanted to eradicate from our consciousness, other forces in us are mobilised, which equally belong to our nature: for, the bright reverse of group formation is that, at least within the group, other people are elevated to the rank of fellow men.

And that provides us the key for the understanding of the title 'Auguries of Innocence' - borrowed from William Blake's poem. That the innocence is merely an augury, implies that we are living in the age of guilt. Guilt as an augury of innocence. For, as opposed to sexual love, that harbours in its own bosom the forces that threaten to undermine it radically (see 'The ecstasies of Eros'), the dynamics of human group formation - even when it is fuelled by the phenomenon of cooperative aggression - has inevitably to end up in making every discriminating group formation obsolete, as we shall demonstrate in our book 'The evolution of conscience'. The history of human group formation demonstrates unambiguously that mankind is merging into ever larger units: from hordes, over tribes, to (conglomerates) of states on the one hand, and ever more encompassing world religions on the other side. Although, up to now, every magnification of scale entailed only the demarcation of new lines of divide, the movement has inevitably to result in the formation of one single, world-encompassing community. Of such world-encompassing community, the meanwhile very impressive communities that the monotheistic deities knew to gather around them, are only the militarily castrated forebears - the auguries, but at the same time the most important obstacles.

And how lugubrious these auguries may well be, we have tried to depict in the central image 'Defying Moses'. For, the question remains whether humankind will know to survive the Armageddons that are certainly awaiting us in expectance, on this crucial hinge moment in world history.

Stefan Beyst, August 2006.